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Touring Little Bay Islands, a Newfoundland community that will soon become a ghost town, was both poignant and enlightening. After meeting the people who grew up, lived and worked in this east coast outport, we began to understand the impact of their impending relocation.

Musician Tony Oxford
Musician Tony Oxford
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Where is Little Bay Islands? Located in Notre Dame Bay, the island is south of Newfoundland's Baie Verte Peninsula and west of Fogo Island. The closest mainland town is Springdale, which is just east of the Trans Canada Highway.

Tony Oxford

Our guide was musician, Tony Oxford, who accompanied our Adventure Canada Newfoundland cruise as a culture specialist. Tony was born in Little Bay Islands. During our walk "up around shore" with him, we met his mother, uncle and cousin.

Tony's stories helped us understand the transformation of Little Bay Islands from a hard-working and prosperous fishing village to an outport on the verge of abandonment.


Prior to our shore excursion, Tony gave passengers a presentation about the history of Little Bay Islands. "Dried salt cod sustained Newfoundland for well over four centuries," he said.

He told us that Little Bay Islands had three fisheries — local cod-jigging, the French Shore fishery and the Labrador fishery, which supported 116 men on 14 boats.

"My father went to fish in Labrador for 26 summers," recalled Tony. "I would write him a letter and he would reply, but only once each summer because it took so long for the letters to get there and back."

Strong's Room

During our walk around the harbor, Tony pointed out the location of Strong's Room. "The whole community centered around it."

The complex included at least three acres of flakes or drying areas, with railroad tracks passing through the middle of them. Workers unloaded cod from the railway cars and spread them on balsam fir boughs to dry.

The balsam trees grew on Strong's Farm, which also had fields for grazing cattle. They sold the beef to people as far away as Green Bay.

In the evening, workers collected the cod and brought it back to a storehouse so it wouldn't become damp. It took about three weeks for the fish to dry.

Adventure Canada passengers tour Little Bay Islands
Adventure Canada passengers tour Little Bay Islands
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tony showed us photos of Strong's white-trimmed buildings. One was a cooperage for making barrels.

Exporting fish

Another building was used for culling fish. "They would shuffle the dried cod like a deck of cards," said Tony. "The large dried fish (number one) would go to Portugal for bacalau. The smaller ones would be separated as number two, while the number three grade would be shipped to the West Indies."

He explained that inside the large packing plant a "big old screw" would come down from the roof and press the dried cod into large boxes. Workers would nail the lids down before shipping the fish overseas.

Today, nothing remains of Strong's Room. "It's gone. Disappeared," said Tony.

Coasting on schooners

As we continued our walk, we chatted with a lady who stopped her car to wave to Tony. "Her father was a coaster who operated a schooner up and down the coast to distribute everything from shampoo to razor blades to outport communities."

He explained that the Tuckers, Les Jones, his father and uncle were also in the business of coasting.

Meeting a local resident
Meeting a local resident
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Building ships

Shipbuilding was a huge industry in Little Bay Islands during the days of the cod fishing industry. "As the fishery evolved, we didn't need schooners anymore, so we built longliners," said Tony.

One massive shipyard was owned by the Jones family. Others were operated by the Wisemans and the Weirs. As business thrived, people from the entire Green Bay area came to work in Little Bay Islands.

"Little Bay Islands had a forge, so all of its ships had iron rudders. Boats built in Miles Cove, Harry's Harbour and all around the bay had wooden rudders because they didn't have forges."

Cod moratorium

What were the effects of the 1992 cod-fishing moratorium announced by the minister of the Federal Department of Fisheries? "Devastating," replied Tony. "It resulted in the layoff and loss of employment for 19,000 rural Newfoundlanders and Labradorians."

The population of Little Bay Islands fell from 550 in 1945 to less than 80 people living there permanently today. Most have left to find employment elsewhere.

Little Bay Islands' well-equipped school, the H. L. Strong Academy, had only one student and one teacher when we were there. He was thrilled to spend some time with one of our ship's passengers, a teenager who was the same age as him.

Relocation vote

Faced with the challenge of supporting these remote communities with ferries, electricity, education and health care, the Newfoundland government offers outport families up to $270,000 to pack up and leave their homes and memories behind. (The controversial resettlement program will also lease it back to them for $5,000 a year as a summer home, without electricity and ferry services to get there.)

Sharlene Hinz, owner of Aunt Edna's Boarding House
Sharlene Hinz, owner of Aunt Edna's Boarding House
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Residents of many of the 1,200 outports scattered around Newfoundland's 29,000-kilometer (18,000-mile) coastline have already resettled elsewhere. The deserted buildings of Parsons Harbour, Petites, Grand Bruit, Oderin Island, Ireland's Eye and hundreds of other abandoned outports are now just haunting reminders of their past.

During the last resettlement vote, nearly 80% of permanent Little Bay Islands residents agreed to leave. If the number rises 10% on the next referendum, Little Bay Islands will no longer exist as a living community.

Bed and breakfast

On the porch in front of Aunt Edna's Boarding House, we met summer resident, Sharlene Hinz. "Aunt Edna owned this house for 45 years. She sold ice cream here," she said.

"I operate it as a bed and breakfast in the summer. This year has been my busiest ever. With resettlement coming, people want to come back and have one last look at Little Bay Islands before it disappears."

First road

As we continued our walk with Tony Oxford, he told us that there were no roads on Little Bay Islands when he was a kid. "Every family had their own wharf. If we went to see someone, we'd go by boat and tie it up on their wharf."

Wooden boathouses reflected in harbor
Wooden boathouses reflected in harbor
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

He remembers when the first vehicle arrived in Little Bay Islands when he was 12. "Because everyone traveled by boat, all the houses had big front windows on the harbor side. When the road came through, they moved the windows to the front of the house and boarded up the hole on the other side with clapboard."

Internet access

After we stopped to take photos of some picturesque wooden boat houses reflected in the water, Tony explained that Little Bay Islands operates off-grid, with electricity from a diesel generator. People have Internet access and TV.

We noticed a rusty old schoolbus, filled to the roof with firewood. "It's not uncommon for people to give newlyweds a cord of wood as a wedding gift," said Tony.

Ferry to Little Bay Islands

Of the nine general stores that were once in the community, none remain. "If you want to buy anything, you have to go to the mainland. The only place to get gas for your car is at the ferry dock on Pilley's Island." (The ferry-crossing time is a half-hour.)

The general store at Strong's Room sold food, salt and paint. Tony Oxford's Uncle Winc (short for Wincell) remembers going there to buy items for his grandmother during the cod-fishing era. He said it was so busy that he once had to wait four hours to be served.

Fishing license

We met Uncle Winc during a walk up the boardwalk to Pole Hill, one of several hiking trails in Little Bay Islands. Pointing out partridgeberries growing along the path, he explained that the locals pick them in September and October.

Uncle Winc views Little Bay Islands from Pole Hill outlook
Uncle Winc views Little Bay Islands from Pole Hill outlook
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The 400-foot (122-meter) outlook and picnic site offers a spectacular view of Little Bay Islands. The sign at the base of the hill reads: "Get a bird's eye view of our beautiful island."

Uncle Winc was a career fisherman. "I fished for 50 years," he said. "I was asked to sell my fishing license to younger people when I turned 65. Taxes took a big chunk of the income from it."

View from Pole Hill

With Uncle Winc, we looked out over Little Bay Islands and its harbor. An iceberg drifted along the coast past Big Pickle. "It's not easy leaving a place where you've lived all your life," he said.

Below us were wharfs, homes and boats, dominated by a very large building. "That was the modern fish processing plant," said Tony. "My mother worked there in the 1970s."

Canned crab

He told us that crab filled the void when the cod fishery collapsed. "In the processing plant, workers cooked the crabs. They removed the meat from the shells with a nudge and then cut it up."

After shaking the joints on a vibrating screen, they collected the fallen crabmeat. Finally, they put three or four pieces of the orange crab in each can, covered them with shaken crab bits and another layer of crab pieces before sealing the cans.

After the Newfoundland fishery came under the control of two very large multinational companies, National Sea & Fishery Products International, Little Bay Islands lost its license to process crab.

Now closed, the fish processing plant will never be used again. "The building will crumble with time," said Tony.

Juanita Hull serves shortbread cookies
Juanita Hull serves shortbread cookies
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Outport hospitality

After walking down from Pole Hill, a bus brought us and other Adventure Canada passengers to the school gymnasium, where volunteers and ladies from the Women's Home League served us refreshments.

As we enjoyed the delicious partridgeberry pies, cupcakes and cookies, we had the opportunity to meet more of the friendly folks in Little Bay Islands.

One of them was Juanita Hull, Tony Oxford's cousin, who made the best shortbread cookies we've ever tasted.

Relocation package

After learning about its vibrant past, it hurt us to think about Little Bay Islands disappearing. We wondered what would happen to the inhabitants when the majority of them request the government relocation package.

Tony Oxford picked up his guitar to sing, as he did so often during our cruise.

His eloquent song helped us understand what must be going through the minds of the people from Little Bay Islands.

"Every time I showed up another boat was on the beach, lying on its side... another house was boarded up," he sang. "My home will soon be a memory. How I hate to go back and say good-bye."

Update: Residents of Little Bay Islands relocated on December 31, 2019, with financial assistance from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Electricity, ferry and other services stopped on that date. One couple remained, living off the grid.


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L'Anse aux Meadows UNESCO Site Tour - Visitor Center, Trail and Sod Huts

Newfoundland Traditional Music in Black Duck Brook - Port-au-Port

Newfoundland Foods, Cuisine and Traditional Dishes